Child Care At Work? New Report and Conversation Questions the Role Business Should Play in our Nation’s Child Care - Early Learning Nation

Child Care At Work? New Report and Conversation Questions the Role Business Should Play in our Nation’s Child Care

Elliot Haspel is clear about one thing regarding business and child care: he believes that on-site child care or business-supported child care does have a role to play in solving our national child care crisis. Plenty of people benefit from having child care attached to their work, and certain industries—he cites hospitals and airports among them—require a high degree of in-person attendance. Taking care of kids isn’t just good for the kids themselves, it’s actually good for business.

The problem, according to Haspel, comes when our country begins to rely on big business to subsidize public goods – like health insurance for instance. Businesses may have a role to play, but history has shown businesses to be effectively looking out for their bottom line over employee well-being, particularly in the face of economic downtown, shareholder pressure or the “fickle” nature of the dynamic business market.

In his recently released report, co-published with the Better Life Lab at New America (where I work as a staff writer) Haspel lays out the case for why relying on business to improve our country’s child care could be problematic. Haspel presented his report in a webinar which was followed by a panel discussion, much of which revolved around advocates who proposed a more inclusive “both and” structure.

“On-site child care programs can be part of a broader system,” Haspel said during the webinar. “Some of the best [child cares] in the world exist as part of an on-site program.” The question he asks is: who is child care for? “If all you want to do is get parents to work, you don’t want to invest in a high-quality system. You just want a minimum system that works ok.”

Haspel has already written extensively on this topic – from denouncing the push for private equity in child care to cautioning the country on using tax breaks for business-supported child care. He proposes instead a business community that supports a larger publicly-financed child care system, one which has on-site care as part of the solution.

In a Q and A, Haspel explains why this “both-and” solution may not be the one that works – and the pitfalls of touting the unpopular opinion of the moment. But what could the way forward look like instead? A lightly edited conversation follows.

Rebecca Gale: The report is incredibly timely because the White House’s CHIPS Act includes a provision that employers who benefit from this Act should craft a program tailored to the location to provide child care for all of their workers. We are also seeing more states look to find ways to incentivize businesses to help shore up the child care industry. And much of the advocacy community has been quick to embrace these business-led solutions. What do you think we have to gain by looking toward businesses as the bedrock of such solutions, and are there other national models where this method has been successful?  

Elliot Haspel: I absolutely understand the temptation to reach for employers given the dire straits the child care sector finds itself in — any port in a storm, as they say. There are two hypothetical advantages to this approach. First, I don’t think anyone can question that things like on-site child care centers can be immensely helpful to the lucky few who get to use them. We have such an expensive, supply-constrained system thanks to decades of failure to provide adequate public funding that these benefits do provide a, well, benefit. Secondly, there is an argument—and I think it has potential validity—that getting employers engaged around child care just for their employees can be an on-ramp for getting them engaged in the fight for a universal system.

But here’s the thing. There aren’t any national models I’m aware of where making businesses the primary source of child care has been successful. In what are commonly regarded as top-tier child care systems, such as in places like France and the Nordic countries, on-site child care programs exist but are part of the broader publicly-funded system. They are generally regulated the same as a community program and cost the same as a community program. An employee has options, and on- or near-site care is one option among many. In that sense, those offerings are more about physical proximity to a workplace as opposed to running child care through the employer-employee relationship.

Gale: You’ve said—rightly—that we don’t expect employers to provide 2nd grade. We’ve managed to keep that public good to the purview of states and the federal government. What is it about the evolution of child care that makes this so drastically different that we are creating more incentives for businesses to get involved?

Haspel: So it’s worth doing a quick recap of the divergent histories around child care and public schools. The idea of public schooling has been around since the literal founding of America; Thomas Jefferson was an early champion. Horace Mann really kicked the movement into gear in the early-to-mid 19th century. The first compulsory schooling law was passed in Massachusetts in 1852, although scholars actually think the compulsory attendance laws lagged rather than drove widespread usage and taxpayer funding.

The arguments for public schools were varied, but largely rested on the idea that an educated populace was critical for a sustainable democracy, alongside more utilitarian arguments about a skilled workforce and forging a common American identity (or, in its more odious version, forced assimilation of immigrants and Native Americans). Even though public schools absolutely have a child-care function, that’s not how they are primarily perceived in the public eye, then or now.

Child care, on the other hand—with some exceptions—occupied a strange place because of a confluence of gender norms, economics (most early Americans lived on multigenerational family farms or ran a family business), and antiquated views of young children as either tiny adults or impulse-driven half-humans. It got almost zero public funding. Fast-forward all the way to the 1970s—I’m jumping through a lot of history!—and mothers are flooding into the labor force. There’s no child care system there to meet them. Nixon vetoes the Comprehensive Child Development Act in 1971. But there’s huge pent-up demand. So, who is there to meet them? The market. (Maxine Eichner calls this phenomenon the “Free-Market Family”). Now child care isn’t a critical piece of social infrastructure that informs the development of American democracy and safe, healthy, prosperous communities – – now child care is a private service, a mere work support. It’s been kicked into a different plane, philosophically.

And both elected officials and advocates went along with it. I trace in the report how we’ve had pushes for employer-sponsored child care benefits in every administration since Jimmy Carter. Even look at Build Back Better: “pre-K” was to be universal and free, “child care” was to be acquired with a sliding fee scale. So, these mindsets are pretty deeply entrenched. If you accept child care is mere “work support,” then sure, leaning on employers makes some sense. My argument is that child care is so, so much more than just a work enabler.

Gale: The obvious analogy that has been touted—both in your report and presentation—is health care, and how and why businesses got involved as purveyors of health insurance. Yet the health insurance marketplace has proved complicated to unwind and many people—myself included—still rely on their employers to provide their families’ health benefits. Is this really so different from how employer-sponsored child care might look?

Haspel: The health insurance marketplace has proven complicated to unwind because we haven’t been able to muster the political will for a truly universal healthcare system, with respect to ObamaCare, it’s a half-measure. And in some ways, that’s exactly the point.

The more we entrench child care as a job-linked benefit, the harder it will be to transition away from that model, both politically and practically. So, if we want to replicate the employer health insurance model and get 50 percent of the country getting their child care via employers—bringing along job lock, volatility, limited options and inefficiencies, all while leaving millions out in the cold—then I think we need to be honest with ourselves about the tradeoffs. Except, as I point out in the report, in some ways running child care through employers is even worse, because you’ve also got the child to think of and there isn’t any equivalent of COBRA or the ACA marketplaces.

Gale: Many experts argue that child care is in crisis: demand is high, supply is low, providers are paid poverty wages and the children are suffering when the quality of care is poor. In the panel discussion there was a lot of talk of “both-and,” the idea that the business-sponsored child care programs could help improve quality, access and supply. Can you walk me through why you are wary of this approach, and what should be done instead?

Haspel: “Both-and” doesn’t work when you’re trying to squeeze the same balloon, and “both-and” doesn’t work when there are opportunity costs. While I appreciate that some businesses are stepping up (I try to emphasize every time I talk about this that the intentions here are largely good!) and I wouldn’t tell them to stop.

What I would say is that policymakers need to stop using taxpayer money to incentivize them. Doing so comes at the cost of advancing more universal approaches or approaches that prioritize particular populations (like lower-income families), reinforces child care as a mere work support, and gives more political power to big business and investor-backed for-profit child care chains, both of which have shown themselves unaligned with the costs of an affordable, universal, pluralistic system with well-compensated early educators.

Gale: The presentation and discussion included a concept in child care that I don’t think gets enough attention: the “minimum child care viable fallacy.” If all you want to do is get parents to work, you don’t want to invest in a high-quality system. You just want a minimum system that works ok. As a parent and someone who has covered child care as a reporting beat for a while, this makes absolute sense to me, but I wonder how such a comment has resonated with a wider audience, particularly decision makers who may view child care only as an economic necessity so that more parents can work?

Haspel: It’s interesting, I’ve never had anyone challenge me on the fallacy. Again, I get why policymakers and advocates have, for about 25 years now, leaned so heavily on the economic/work arguments for child care. It brought some unexpected allies along, but one analogy I use is that it’s sort of like wedging a door open by breaking the wood. You make an opening, but it’s narrow and comes with quite a cost. Children are backgrounded in that frame. I don’t know that as a sector, we have fully reckoned with what it means to go full-bore on child care as a mere work support. This is actually the topic of the new book I’m working on, so I’ll have a lot more to say in the coming months!

Gale: One of my favorite discussion lines was “today’s stopgap measure is tomorrow’s status quo.” It really speaks to the fractured nature of our public policy landscape, but I wonder how it impacts the way our country is shaping the support for the child care debate. Where do you think this leads us, and what do you think this debate looks like 5 years into the future?

Haspel: If we double-down on employer-sponsored child care benefits—and continue to use public funds to incentivize them—in 5 years, I fear we are going to be in a place where far more parents are dependent on their employers for child care, where big business and big corporate child care chains are politically dominant in the child care debate, and where we are further than we even are today from a universal system that works well for all involved.

We need to say this out loud: a functional child care system will take, at minimum, $100 to $150 billion a year. That’s good and proper for a human service that undergirds healthy children, healthy families and healthy communities. I fail to see how rushing headlong to foreground employers in child care puts us on a credible path to that system.

There is a difference between an incremental step on the path towards an effective system and a step that takes us down a different path. The pursuit of widespread employer-linked child care is the wrong path for America.

Rebecca Gale is a staff writer with the Better Life Lab at New America where she covers child care. The Better Life Lab hosted the event and co-published Haspel’s report – which can be found online here.

Rebecca Gale is a writer with the Better Life Lab at New America where she covers child care. Follow her on Instagram at @rebeccagalewriting, and subscribe to her Substack newsletter, "It Doesn't Have to Be This Hard."

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